'Five Years North': Film Review | DOC NYC 2020

Five Years North
Courtesy of Optimist
A compelling look at two disparate New York lives.

Zach Ingrasci and Chris Temple's latest documentary, which won the Metropolis Grand Jury Prize at DOC NYC, will be released at the Film Forum.

“There are eight million stories in the naked city,” went the voiceover in Jules Dassin’s classic Big Apple-set film noir. Two such stories make up the crux of the documentary Five Years North, which follows a pair of New Yorkers who couldn’t be more incompatible, even if their lives are connected in larger, more meaningful ways.

On the one hand there’s Luis, an undocumented teen who’s come to the city to find a job and send money home to Guatemala. And on the other there’s Judy, an ICE officer with Cuban and Puerto Rican roots who patrols the very streets where Luis lives and works, rounding up immigrants for detention, and, possibly, deportation.

Directors Zach Ingrasci and Chris Temple followed these two for several years, and there’s an underlying suspense involving whether their paths will ever cross — which would likely mean that Luis’s stay in America is over. Until that happens, if it happens, Five Years North chronicles each of them separately: We see Luis doing whatever he can to scrape by in the city, while Judy and her fellow officers, who work for ICE’s Fugitive Operations unit, are sending immigrants like Luis back home.

Of the two narratives, Luis’ is by far the most harrowing. He’s only 15 when he first arrives in New York, and he hardly speaks a word of English. And yet he’s obliged to find work and start paying off a massive debt to his smugglers, not to mention the debt of his father, Pedro, who was deported after his son had already left Guatemala.

The filmmakers make occasional visits to Luis’ native village — a remote and rather beautiful farming community nestled in the misty hills. But it’s also a place steeped in poverty, with families surviving on money sent back to them from relatives in the U.S. Luis’ uncle, Mario, who’s been in New York for decades, has already made enough to build a huge eight-room home right in the middle of the village, and his success story is clearly what has driven Luis and a few of his cousins to attempt the difficult trek abroad.

And yet the pressure exerted on the 15-year-old to provide for his entire family, all the while waiting for a court date that will determine his legal status, proves too much to handle at times. The film’s toughest moments show Luis, who makes a living delivering food or washing dishes, suffering from panic attacks and the huge chasm separating him from his loved ones, whom he constantly talks to on video calls.

Meanwhile, Judy’s job consists of rounding up immigrants who’ve been convicted of crimes, sanctioning them for deportation in a practice that increased significantly under the Trump administration. The child of immigrants herself, Judy has mixed feelings about her work at ICE, admitting at one point that they also arrest people without criminal records. But she sees it as a job, and often a bureaucratic one (her office is overstuffed with files), that someone’s got to do, and at least she tries to do it humanely and responsibly.

In one memorable sequence, we see Judy’s team picking up a Dominican man in Queens who committed a crime years ago but has completely reformed since, making an honest living to feed his five children. They arrest him in the middle of the day, when his kids are coming home from school, and although we never know if he winds up getting deported, the trauma he and his family experience is painful to witness.

Scenes like that stick in your head, even if there’s nothing necessarily groundbreaking about the filmmaking in Five Years North — the direction and editing are straightforward, if highly efficient, and the music a tad treacly in spots. But the persistence that Ingrasci and Temple show in capturing these dual trajectories over such a long time period pays off in the end, especially when we see how Luis evolves from a lost, wonderstruck kid into a member of New York’s hardworking immigrant class.

That’s perhaps the main takeaway from this intimate tale of urban strife: Luis could be any guy delivering your food — the kind you don’t think twice about after closing the door — while Judy is just another public worker trying to pay the bills, albeit in a profession some would find morally compromising. They’re two out of millions of New Yorkers, but the more we get to know them, the more we see how these opposites — who exist on opposite sides of the law — are bound together by their mutual struggle to make it in the big city.

Venue: DOC NYC
Production company: Optimist 
Directors: Zach Ingrasci, Chris Temple
Producer: Jenna Kelly
Executive producers: SJ Murray, Morgan Kays, Ari Rastegar, Kellie Rastegar, Tolu Olubunmi
Cinematographer: Nick Kraus
Editor: Alejandro Valdés-Rochin
Composer: T. Griffin
Sales: Film Sales Company 

In Spanish, English, Maya dialect
88 minutes